Have you noticed that the weird-looking self-driving Uber cars haven’t been buzzing around the Valley anymore? They were pretty hard to miss.
Here are all the updates you need on the now-defunct Arizona Uber self-driving program.
In March, a pedestrian died after being struck by an Uber self-driving car near Mill Avenue and Curry Road in Tempe. Being one of the very first deaths involving self-driving cars, the crash left everyone with questions about responsibility and accountability as well as the overall safety of these cars. The self-driving cars’ primary focus is to be safer than human-driven cars, so this accident came across as profoundly disturbing and newsworthy.
Immediately after word of the accident, Uber pulled all self-driving cars from the streets in their testing areas, including all of Arizona.
Police began investigating the crash and found the leading cause to be distracted driving. Although the car was self-driving, Uber placed a safety driver behind the wheel (and does so for all self-driving vehicles) who was tasked with watching the road and being able to jump in should the vehicle need human intervention. This particular safety driver was streaming the TV show “The Voice” while behind the wheel and was not giving her full attention to the road.
Uber said it has yet to explain why its car behaved the way it did due to the open case, according to The Verge. According to a preliminary NTSB report, the car’s software detected the pedestrian six seconds before the crash but misidentified her as an unknown object, then a vehicle, then a bicycle. The car tried to emergency brake at 1.3 seconds before impact, but Uber had deactivated the automated emergency brake system to “help ensure less erratic testing.” Based on video footage from inside the car, the driver did not look up from her phone and see the pedestrian until a split second before the collision.
In May, as more findings from the investigation were being released, Uber shut down its entire self-driving operation in Arizona. The company laid off about 300 workers who were mostly test drivers, according to The Verge. And it was not solely Uber’s decision – the Arizona governor’s office, which in the past spoke very positively of the program, indefinitely suspended it.
The investigations by both Tempe Police and the National Transportation Safety Board are still open, and there is a possibility that the Uber test driver will be charged with vehicular manslaughter. Tempe police have ruled the death “entirely avoidable” because of the driver’s failure to follow protocol and be attentive to the road.
Uber self-driving programs are continuing to operate in other cities, but it may be a long time until we see the cars in the Valley again.